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What CIOs can learn from startups

What CIOs can learn from startups

Startup culture is influencing businesses more than ever. Here we review how your enterprise can benefit from it

Picture: Dennis Skley (Flickr)

Picture: Dennis Skley (Flickr)

It’s official: you have made it right to the top of your company, your knowledge and leadership skills have no rival, you are the indispensable right hand to the CEO and the organisation’s internal champion. In short: you are the CIO.

To progress your career it would make sense to examine peers with more experience than yourself as examples to follow. But with all the news about startups, is there anything well-established enterprises can learn from these young entrepreneurs and their uber-optimistic culture?  

The ability to adapt to new trends and living in a state of constant innovation are essential features not only for startups but for any business that seeks success in today’s competitive market. One of the main threats for consolidated companies is the risk of stagnation.

Take Kodak, for example. Despite being the film market giant during most of the 20th century, it missed the opportunity of leading the digital photography revolution. And are you reading this article on a mobile device? It probably isn’t a Blackberry or a Nokia phone!

Hywel Sloman, who has been the IT Director at Britain's Arsenal Football Club since 2011, is aware of the need to bring fresh concepts to the table. “I like to work with smaller, more nimble vendors who can work at the pace we need and can bring innovation and new ideas to us,” he told sister title CIO UK. “I am also very clear that innovation tends not to come from our industry, so I work hard to build relationships and get ideas from organisations outside football.”

For startups innovation and agility are not just a matter of success but of sheer survival. In an increasingly aggressive market, fresh and innovative concepts, as well as a quasi-religious faith in trend-setting ideas, are a way of ensuring that your voice is heard.

Startups need to maximise productivity often on a shoe-string budget, especially at the early stages before early rounds of investment. You might see startups making use of free and open source software, for example, to avoid running into expensive licensing issues – something that could ultimately be attractive to an open-minded CFO.

Some major organisations, such as AstraZeneca or Oxfam, have achieved considerable gains from their collaborations with startups, including obtaining privileged working relationships with flexible startups that can get prototypes and trials ready in remarkably shorter timeframes than a legacy partner might be able (or willing) to.  

What also makes startups such desirable places to work is their attractive brand of relaxed and inclusive office culture. Malaysian venture CO3, “probably south east Asia’s coolest office”, has a red plane in the middle of its premises to encourage staff “to fly”.

A friendly and fun team-work environment doesn't stop at the environment, it can also stimulate creativity, camaraderie, and group spirit. At least in theory, startups employees are the happy workers of capitalism. And of course there’s the thinking out of the box mentality, an attribute mastered by most emerging businesses on their succeed-or-die journeys.

Other startup strategies include running innovation labs, corporate venturing and the ever-popular hackathons, where experimentation is encouraged.

Despite their high failure rate, some of the entrepreneurial ventures that have succeeded boast a shiny place in the Fortune 500 list, including Alibaba, PayPal and the ever-controversial Facebook.

Corporate giants have also seen the attractive profit possibilities by investing in startups. As of 2017, Tencent had backed the highest number of Chinese unicorns. The Alibaba Group and Japan’s SoftBank are also heavily investing in early and late stage ventures.

In today’s world having a brilliant idea is just not enough: you have to be fast in its implementation before someone else does it for you.  Startups, in contrast to larger companies where dynamism can be obstructed by internal processes, have that speed and are ready to use it. In that respect, as a CIO the startup is your natural ally.

However, not all is glory and joy for startups. Whereas taking risks is part of their success strategy, corporates have a higher degree of accountability that they cannot (and shouldn’t) bypass. On top of regulations and audits, they have to answer to shareholders and not-always-adventurous boards of directors.   

Chris Zissis, CIO at JLL since 2013, is open to working with smaller tech startups and in 2016 his company partnered with Leverton, a Berlin-based machine learning and artificial intelligence startup. However, he also advocates caution when partnering with startups: “[You also have to consider]...do startups really have the capability to do what they say they can?"

Stephen Hawking once said that intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. Just like in Aesop’s fable of the Lion and the little Mouse, astute collaboration is possible and beneficial to all parties involved: the small rodent can help the mighty king with its agile teeth and witty thinking while the lion can offer protection. Just bear in mind that they have different diets.

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